Cameron Mills is perhaps the greatest underdog story in the illustrious history of the University of Kentucky basketball program. A product of Lexington Dunbar High School, and the son of former UK player Terry Mills, Cameron Mills opted to walk-on at Kentucky despite being offered a full scholarship to the University of Georgia.
Seldom, if ever, has a walk-on had the immense impact that Cameron Mills had on his Wildcat teams. The three-point shooting specialist, who played at UK from 1994 to 1998, played in only 15 total games his first two years in uniform, but in his final two seasons he displayed why coach Rick Pitino offered the sharp-shooter the opportunity of a lifetime.
The 6-3 guard averaged only 4.3 points per game in his four year career, but Mills came up big in the biggest games. A career 47.4% three-point shooter, Mills, during his junior season (1997), made 53.2% of his three-point tries, making 42 of 79 long-range bombs. And under the brightest lights, the '97 NCAA Tournament, Mills made an unfathomable 17 of 27 from beyond the arc (63.0%). Earlier, in the '97 SEC Tournament, Mills made 10 of 16 threes (62.5%), propelling the 'Cats to the SEC Tournament title. For those mathematically challenged; In 1997 postseason play, Mills made 27 of 43 three-pointers (62.8%). Simply awesome!
Adding to his legend; In the '97 postseason, Mills averaged 17.3 minutes per game for nine games. He averaged 11.9 points per game, good for a .686 points per minute production.
In his senior season, playing under first year UK coach Tubby Smith, Mills made 43.7% of his three-point shots for the season, with none being more important than the three-pointer he made which gave UK the lead in their Elite 8 contest versus Duke. UK, which found themselves down 17-points with 9:38 remaining, rallied around Mills' shot, and downed the Dookies 86-84 to advance to the Final Four. In Mills' third straight visit to the Promised Land, he once again answered the SOS: Finding themselves down 10-points to Utah in the National Championship game, Mills came through by making 2 of 4 threes in only eight minutes of action, helping send UK to its seventh national title.
Mills is beloved not because he scored 2,000 points, or was a All-America, rather, he made big shots in big games, propelling the 'Cats to victory when a loss seemed inevitable. And he did it not as a pampered superstar, but as a former walk-on whose dream was to play for his hometown 'Cats. No better story exists in UK basketball history.
I recently had the great pleasure of talking with Mills about his days in Kentucky blue, and getting his thoughts on the current crop of 'Cats. Here's what he had to say:
ASOB: You famously passed up a full scholarship offer by Hugh Durham at Georgia. Was the decision to walk-on at UK a difficult one?
CM: "No, it wasn't difficult at all. I spent my whole life preparing to be a 'Cat. At the end of my high school career I was very disappointed they weren't recruiting me. I just wasn't a Rick Pitino-type of player: I didn't play defense, and I wasn't very quick, which are things you have to do anywhere you go. But when they said I could walk-on it wasn't difficult at all."
ASOB: Your father played at UK in the late '60's and early '70's. Did you feel any additional pressure to perform because your father had such a successful college career?
CM: "No, actually I didn't. When I got to UK as a freshman, and looking at the talent around me, I knew I was not going to get significant minutes. I thought, 'I'll be a bench guy for four years,' which was okay with me, plus I looked at it as I wasn't as good as my dad. So there wasn't any added pressure. Really, the only pressure I felt was from Rick Pitino. He never let his players embrace success."
ASOB: In a career filled with great memories, which one of those memories stands out above the others?
CM: "I'd say there are a couple of these: Individually, scoring 31 points against Florida my senior year, even thoiugh we lost. It was just so unexpected; it was a disappointing game overall, because we lost, but it felt good to kind of catch fire."
"The team stuff is what really stands out; The national title games, the Elite 8 game against Duke in 1998. The '98 team was just so special, I don't even know if we thought we could do it. But we began blowing out teams in the SEC Tournament, and carried that on to the NCAA Tournament."
ASOB: That leads me into my next question; The '98 team, at what point during the season did you guys begin to "buy-in" to Tubby's system?
CM: "What happened was, we lost at home to (#18) Ole Miss (73-64 on February 14), and the 6:00 am practices began. Alan Edwards' mother passed away, and I think that helped bring us all together. And we started playing better and better after that. We never lost another game."
"The 6:00 am practices were not the difference, they were just 6:00 am practices, but we started to buy-in, the team started to focus, and for some reason everything just clicked starting with the SEC Tournament. We started just blowing teams out, I think we won the (SEC) championship game by 30 (86-56 over South Carolina), and we cruised through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament."
ASOB: In the epic game against Duke in the Elite 8, you hit the three-pointer with 2:15 left in the game that put UK up 80-79, after being down 17 with just over 9:00 minutes to play. At what point did you know the ball was going to hit the bottom of the sack?
CM: "I didn't know it was going in, until it went in. That's the first shot I made during the Tournament. I really had no confidence to shoot the ball, which is what led to a little bit of a celebration on my part. But it was just one of many big shots that my teammates made."
ASOB: You played for both Rick Pitino, and Tubby Smith. Compare the two coaching styles.
CM: "Well, they are very similar in a lot of ways, but the biggest difference in them were in the scouting reports. Pitino would have a 35 page scouting report, and we'd watch lots and lots of video. His philosophy was to inundate us with information, hoping that a lot of it would stick with us."
"Tubby's scouting reports weren't as detailed. He wanted to limit the amount of information because he thought we'd never remember all the information. And after playing for both coaches, I don't think either way is better than the other."
ASOB: What do you think of John Calipari's philosophy of recruiting the absolute best players available, even though many of them will be one-and-dones?
CM: "College basketball has changed, it's much different, even much different than when I played. If you go out and get the best players in the country, this is what's going to happen (players leaving early). What choice do you have, though? Go out and get second tier players and hope for the best? You have to recruit the best of the best and hope they gel. You want to have the most talented team in the country, and hope they play as a team."
ASOB: Do you get the sense that the current youthful UK squad has gelled?
CM: "A younger team isn't necessarily mature enough to realize "we" goes further than "I." If "we" (the team) doesn't care who gets the credit, and if "I" (a team member) doesn't care who the star is, then you have a great thing."
"As an example: Pat's (Patterson) problem when he had that slump, he was stepping aside to a fault, but since then he's realized this is his team. He's put in the time and work over the last three years. He's got to want the ball in his hands. And one of the things we've seen is he's taken control of the team."
"But if you look at the core players on the '96, '97, and '98 teams, the core group of guys had been together for two years. They had played through the summer together and that's where you really get better. With a one-year team, it's almost impossible to really get to be the best team you can be."
ASOB: What one thing does this team need to learn in order to fulfill expectations, i.e. get to a Final Four?
CM: "They have to realize it's one (loss) and done, and that can be hard for such a young team. There is a reason it's called March Madness. There are constant upsets, all the time. There's no way to explain or expect teams beating much better teams, and you don't ever want to be one of the upsets. You just can't "mail it in" even if it's a 16 (seed) versus a one (seed)."
ASOB: UK recently went through a three-point shooting slump, what do you attribute the decreased three-point efficiency to?
CM: "It could be something as simple as not working on shooting in practice enough. I know we were over passing, either being unselfish, or not having confidence in the shot. We've got role players that have to take the shot when they're open."
"When Patterson was struggling, he began to put in 30 minutes extra work in practice, and it built his confidence, he knew he had worked hard and that gave him the confidence the needed."
ASOB: We've heard coach Calipari talk about that -- Knowing you out-worked your opponent gives the player confidence.
CM: "Yeah, that's exactly right."
ASOB: Calipari has seemed to welcome former players back into the program with open arms, something that wasn't done previously. How has that affected you?
CM: "I've been to one practice, and one of the first things Calipari said to me was, 'You feel welcome to come to practice any time.'"
"I can't imagine anyone doing a better job than what Calipari has done. You have to do the booster stuff, you have to embrace the boosters and fans, it's a part of the job, and he's been great at that."
"As far as (welcoming) ex-players, I really appreciate it. The reason Kentucky basketball is so great, and the reason I wanted to come to UK was because of the tradition. You've got all those guys, all those great players ..."
"I don't know if you know this or not, but when "Game Day" was at Rupp (Arena) I walked around asking trivia questions to the crowd and guys like Chuck Hayes, Jack Givens, Kyle Macy, Tony Delk, and Derek Anderson were playing H-O-R-S-E. Those are the guys that built the tradition. And coach Calipari realizes that on the backs of all of us, that the UK tradition has been built. We don't need any special treatment, but it's nice to be asked to be around."
I want to sincerely thank Cameron for spending time with A Sea of Blue, and being so forthright with his answers to my questions.
Cameron has long been an in-demand evangelist, based out of Lexington. For more information regarding Mills' ministry, please visit Cameron Mills Ministries.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!